June 25, 2011 Subject:
Thomashefsky and the Yiddish Theater
Bores Thomashefsky is one of the greatest names in the history of Yiddish theater in America. This book is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the topic.
In addition to the historical value, this book is also good for those who are beginning their study of the Yiddish language. Thomashefsky's style is very clear and the vocabulary is very simple. The words are mostly Germanic in affiliation and the loan-words are almost exclusively from English. So much so in fact that there is a glossary in the back of the book to clarify the Americanisms for non-English speaking readers. For example the use of the word “lawyer” rather than “avokat.”
Thomashefsky's story begins in the Ukraine where he gives us a feeling for life in the Old Country. In addition to daily life we get to go to a public hanging with the 12-year old Bores. There are some surprisingly risque moments for a book published in 1937, such as his description of his first amorous encounter. He a 12-year old and she an older teen wife and mother.
The family's sudden forced departure from the Ukraine interrupts Thomashefsky's burgeoning rise to fame as a boy soprano singing for a renowned cantor. He describes the family's flight and he gives a very colorful description of their clamorous arrival in New York. You can almost feel the bustling excitement of the Lower East Side. When his first attempts at being an actor fail, he takes us to work with him in a sweat shop making cigarettes. At one point he also takes us to a squalid bawdy house in a tenement. This is a glimpse of the immigrant experience that your grandfather probably neglected to tell you about.
At the beginning of the book Thomashefsky promises to tell us everything, the good along with the bad, but as is the rule with autobiographies a great deal does not make it into the book. For example he devotes several pages talking about his romance with young Bessie Kaufman in Baltimore, who would soon run away from home to marry Bores in 1891. After recounting their dramatic love story, she totally drops out of the book. Although he mentions the birth of his children he does not mention her name, nor the fact that she enjoyed great acclaim for her roles on the Yiddish theater stage. Bores recounts a story about a visit from the angry father and brother of a very young girl he was having a fling with. It began with loud, insistent banging on his apartment door in the middle of the night. Thomashefsky's partner, the famous actor Jacob Adler and his wife lived on the same floor and when awakened by the ruckus they came out into the hallway. Adler pulled the angry men into his apartment. When one brandished a revolver, Adler's wife leapt up and grabbed the gun allowing the men to disarm the assailant.
Thomashefsky tells us that his wife slept through the entire incident. I suspect she wept silently in her bed through the entire incident. She finally tired of his womanizing and divorced him in 1922.
The Spielberg Yiddish archive also carries a copy of her autobiography which should make for an interesting companion piece to this book.
In addition to his amorous adventures and his stage triumphs, the book is also full of anecdotes about other stars of the Yiddish theater.
The book is an easy read, informative and interesting.